India’s Arctic imperative

While the Indian government seems keen to benefit from seabed mining and resource exploitation in the Arctic, it ought to unequivocally back a sustainable mode of extraction

April 16, 2024 12:44 am | Updated 09:18 am IST

In March 2024, India’s first winter experience at the Arctic came to a successful end. Image for representation. File

In March 2024, India’s first winter experience at the Arctic came to a successful end. Image for representation. File

In December 2023, when four Indian climate scientists arrived in Oslo to begin acclimatisation for India’s maiden winter expedition at the Arctic, they had little idea of what lay ahead. Himadri, India’s research station in the International Arctic Research Base at Svalbard in Norway, had until then hosted missions only in the summer. A winter expedition entails living in the intense cold (as low as -15 degrees Celsius) after a period of rigorous acclimatisation. More concerning for Indian researchers was the daunting prospect of polar nights, a period extending weeks when there is no sun, and daily human activity is governed by the clock.

Growing interest in the Arctic

In March 2024, India’s first winter experience at the Arctic came to a successful end. While the scientists will doubtless be proud of their feat, India’s long reluctance to embark on an all-year Arctic mission calls for introspection. For over a decade, India’s National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research saw no reason for a winter mission to the Arctic. What changed Indian policy, ostensibly, was scientific data showing that the Arctic was warming faster than previously thought. When facts tying catastrophic climatic occurrences in India to the melting of Arctic Sea ice emerged, decision-makers felt compelled to act.

Second, New Delhi is seized of the opening up of Arctic Sea routes, primarily the Northern Sea Route, and would like to route Indian trade through the region. This might help India reduce costs for shipping companies along with time, fuel, and security costs for transmitting goods.

The third reason is geopolitics. China’s growing investments in the Arctic have raised concern in India. Russia’s decision to grant China expanded access to the Northern Sea Route has deepened this anxiety. India’s increasing focus on the Arctic comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region, fuelled by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and exacerbated by the suspension of various regional cooperative forums. There are concerns about the potential repercussions of these tensions, especially given Russia’s growing reliance on its nuclear deterrent on the Kola Peninsula. For India, which aims to maintain constructive relations with both western nations and Russia, these developments carry significant strategic implications.

To be sure, India is no newcomer to the Arctic. Its involvement in the region goes back to 1920, with the signing of the Svalbard Treaty in Paris. In 2007, India undertook its first research mission to investigate Arctic microbiology, atmospheric sciences, and geology. A year later, India became the only developing country, aside from China, to establish an Arctic research base. After being granted ‘observer’ status by the Arctic Council in 2013, India commissioned a multi-sensor moored observatory in Svalbard in 2014 and an atmospheric laboratory in 2016. The work at these stations focuses on examining Arctic ice systems and glaciers and the consequences of Arctic melt on the Himalayas and the Indian monsoon.

Even so, the issue of Indian engagement in the Arctic divides the country’s academic and policy communities. Opinions are split over the potential impacts of the changing climate in the Arctic on India’s economy. The concern primarily stems from mining in the region for fossil fuels, an area where India has yet to articulate a clear economic strategy. The proponents of economic exploitation in the Arctic advocate a pragmatic approach in the region, especially around oil and gas exploration, and mining. The sceptics warn about the potential environmental consequences and underscore the need for a more balanced policy framework that recognises the negative aspects of maritime resource exploitation.

Potential for collaboration

Norway, the present chair of the Arctic Council, has close ties with India. Since the late 1980s, the two countries have collaborated to investigate changing conditions in the Arctic and Antarctic, as well as their impact on South Asia. As climate change ends up more deeply affecting the Arctic and the South Asian monsoon, these efforts have accelerated over time.

India’s present policy is to cooperate with Arctic countries in green energy, and green and clean industries, as a way of bolstering its ‘responsible stakeholder’ credentials. With Denmark and Finland, for instance, Indian collaboration has come in areas such as waste management, pollution control, renewable energy, and green technology. Many believe a partnership with Norway could be transformational for India as it would enable greater Indian participation in the Arctic Council’s working groups, tackling issues such as the blue economy, connectivity, maritime transportation, investment and infrastructure, and responsible resource development. While the Indian government seems keen to benefit from seabed mining and resource exploitation in the Arctic, it ought to unequivocally back a sustainable mode of extraction.

Understandably, a partnership with Norway is likely to be focused on scientific research and climate and environmental protection. These are two of the six pillars that comprise India’s Arctic Policy (the other four being economic and human development; transportation and connectivity; governance and international cooperation; and national capacity building). India would perhaps still look to explore economic opportunities in the Arctic. Norway could, then, help India design a sustainable policy that accommodates the needs of both the scientific community and industry. As global geopolitical tensions are also mounting in the Arctic, finding constructive and non-sensitive ways to alleviate pressure will be in the interest of both India and Norway.

Abhijit Singh is head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Andreas Østhagen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.